In Mumbai South Central, two Dalits set for a tight fight

Eknath Gaikwad. Eknath Gaikwad.

The Lok Sabha constituency in the city with the largest Dalit population — Mumbai South Central — is set for a direct fight between the Congress and the Shiv Sena, both of which have fielded Dalit candidates.

While 74-year-old sitting Congress MP Eknath Gaikwad is seeking a third consecutive term, 41-year-old Rahul Shewale of the Shiv Sena, who has been a corporator from Anushakti Nagar and chairman of the civic body’s standing committee, is fighting the Lok Sabha polls for the first time.

Neither of the two candidates have a Dalit-specific agenda to campaign for, but both plan to raise the issue of the proposed Ambedkar memorial at India United Mills No. 5, popularly known as Indu Mills, to their advantage.

The constituency, which comprises areas such as Anushakti Nagar, Chembur, Dharavi, Sion-Koliwada, Wadala and Mahim, has 14.08 lakh voters registered as on January 31, 2014. Of these, about 3.5 lakh voters, or approximately about 25 per cent, are Dalits.

Gaikwad says, “The community has faith in me as they know I am one among them and have done a lot of social and developmental work for them in sectors such as education, health, employment over the years. Rahul Shewale, on the other hand, just happens to be born a Dalit. He is neither a social worker nor an Ambedkar follower. He was not well known before he was declared a candidate from this constituency.”

Gaikwad says it was because of the Congress government in the state that the Union government decided to hand over the Indu Mills land for the memorial, though the official process is yet to be completed. “In principle, all the approvals have been issued. A design consultant will also be selected after elections,” he said.

Shewale, however, claims the Dalit community has been let down by Gaikwad on the issue of the proposed Ambedkar memorial at Indu Mills since the transfer of land has officially still not been cleared and the project is yet to begin.

According to Shewale, similar is the case with the revamp of Chaityabhoomi, where Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ashes are interred. “It was during my tenure that I released funds for the development of the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar garden in Chembur, cleared a proposal for the revamp of Chaityabhoomi and increased funds for Ambedkar jayanti from the earlier Rs 5 lakh to Rs 15 lakh. Dalits know of all the work I have done for them as chairman of the BMC’s standing committee,” Shewale said.

While the Shiv Sena rarely flashes the caste card in the elections while picking its candidates, the party is said to have considered Shewale’s Dalit background before fielding him against Gaikwad.

Similar considerations have reportedly influenced Congress too. Some within the party wanted to replace Gaikwad with a newer face, but the party decided against it fearing a Dalit backlash.
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